Despite the Pakistan Army hinting at a tougher position on the reported resurgence of the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa province, residents of Swat continue to fear the militant group is set to retake control of the area.
Chief of Army Staff Gen. Qamar Javed Bajwa, while chairing the 250th Corps Commanders Conference on Thursday, directed formation commanders to “maintain operational readiness and efforts to counter terrorism, particularly in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa and Balochistan,” according to a statement issued by the military’s media wing. This is widely being seen as a warning to the militant group that it will be pushed back if it seeks to secure another foothold in the country’s north.
However, the apprehensions of residents of Swat, Matta, Shangla and Upper Dir persist, as they see parallels between the TTP’s re-emergence and its rise to prominence during the war on terror. The local population has been making its voice heard, with thousands taking to the streets in Khwazakhela and Kabal tehsils to protest the return of terror after years of peace, won through multiple military operations and countless sacrifices.
Blaming the “peace talks” initiated between the TTP and the Government of Pakistan at the behest of the Afghan Taliban, local residents fear the prevailing ceasefire is just a ploy by militants to once again establish their presence in the region and form a parallel government, as they had done previously in 2007. Ahmed Shah, a member of the Swat Qaumi Jirga, told Newsweek this development could result in the Pakistani Taliban spreading their operations from Swat to its adjoining areas.
The Swat Qaumi Jirga was initially formed by elders of Swat in 2006 when insurgency was peaking; it has been revived now, 15 years later, to highlight the threat posed by the TTP, and demand the government and security forces ensure protection from militancy for locals. “We will neither leave our homes, nor will we surrender to the Taliban,” Shah emphasized, saying this was a consensus decision of the Jirga.
Blaming the state and security forces for the re-emergence of the Pakistani Taliban, he demanded the military take serious action against them to curb their efforts. “The first meeting of this Jirga was held on Aug. 17, 2022 to connect the dots as to how the Taliban entered Swat, which doesn’t border Afghanistan or any other country; it only borders Shangla and Buner,” he said, noting the Jirga included representatives of local elders, civil society and other associations.
Barrister Muhammad Ali Saif, who serves as Special Assistant to the KP C.M. on Information, refused to confirm or deny the Taliban’s departure from Swat following demonstrations against their re-emergence. “They [Pakistani Taliban] belong to this country, they have families and relatives here and they have a right to live with them,” he told Newsweek. “We don’t have any problem with them until they take law into their hands and create a law and order situation,” he said, stressing the situation was completely under control right now and there was no law and order situation.
“I can take responsibility for Matta, Swat, where after a particular standoff the area was cleared off Taliban,” he admitted, however was unable to confirm the same for neighboring areas reportedly facing insurgency. The incident Saif referred to was the abduction of seven people, including three policemen and the deputy superintendent of Matta police, Pir Syed, by the TTP when their team visited Balasur Top after receiving reports of the presence of militants.
Denying that this resurgence had been facilitated by the “peace talks” between the government and the TTP, Saif claimed the dialogue was aimed at ending the “20-year-old war.” Stressing the need for a broad- based strategy to find a viable solution acceptable to both sides, he said it was “possible” that some militants might have believed they could cross the border into Pakistan after the ceasefire, but noted this was not the result of any formal agreement,
“The Jirga was never meant to allow Taliban to come into Pakistan and if some have come over or their supporters have re-emerged and they are trying to challenge the writ of government, they will be dealt with iron hand,” he said, referring to a Jirga that visited Afghanistan to meet representatives of the Pakistani Taliban.
Syed Inaamur Rehman, a member of that Jirga, meanwhile claimed he was aware of “thousands” of Taliban who had returned to their homes in Pakistan and rejoined their families. He told Newsweek the Taliban, in their discussions, had blamed the Pakistan Army for violating an earlier ceasefire and suggested this was why they were reluctant for further talks. However, he claimed, recent talks had been promising.
Despite Saif’s reassurance, locals remain unconvinced of their safety. Speaking with Newsweek, several residents lamented that Chief Minister Mahmood Khan, hailing from Matta, had not visited the area even once since assuming office or issued any statement on the re-emergence of the Taliban. “Instead of contacting us, the government formed its own Jirga to dispel these reports and give the impression that everything is okay and our security forces are doing a tremendous job to curtail militancy in the region,” claimed the Qaumi Jirga’s Shah.
This was rebutted by Shah, who claimed all local MPAs were visiting their constituencies. “As far as security is concerned, it’s not the provincial government’s duty. It’s the sole responsibility of the security forces and Frontier Corps,” he said, appearing to wash his government’s hands off the situation.
Another senior member of the Qaumi Jirga, Kaka Jee, told Newsweek locals were merely exercising their constitutional right to demand the state fulfill its duty to protect them from foreign elements. “However, none of the elected members and ministers—both at the provincial and federal level—visited the area to show concern following the Taliban’s re-appearance in the area,” he claimed, stressing if it were not resolved with an “iron fist,” the region could see a return to the Talibanization of the mid-2000s.
The recent reports of a potential return of militancy in Swat has also hit the primary source of income for many—the scenic valley’s tourism industry. According to reports, thousands of tourists have cancelled their bookings, causing billions in losses to local businesses.
Shah confirmed that bookings had been cancelled for Malam Jabba, Bahrain and Kalam Valley. Several people linked with the tourism industry also rejected the government’s reports of the region having no Taliban presence, saying they were merely in hiding. “The insurgents are keeping a low profile with some of them hiding in their safe havens in the mountains and some living with their relatives,” alleged Rasheedur Rehman, a local tourist guide in Swat.